Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth talk over drinks in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“It’s official, old buddy. I’m a has-been.”

Every filmmaker was inspired by something. Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) has stated that his favorite film is the 60s spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, by iconic director Sergio Leone, and Leone’s influence can be seen in many of Tarantino’s films. In the 60s, Leone’s new style of Italian Westerns were a departure from the classic American Westerns Tarantino had grown up with, and in many ways signaled a change in filmmaking overall, away from the wholesome images of the 50s and the first part of the 60s, getting ready for the gritty realism of the 70s. Tarantino’s newest film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood touches on that while also being a love letter to the Hollywood from Tarantino’s formative years. Tarantino has said that this is his most personal film, and you can see the care who poured into this project. I personally loved the film and think it’s a great addition to his repertoire of work.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still

Klaatu tells earth that he comes in peace in The Day the Earth Stood Still

“The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure.”

Science fiction films are big business now, but they used to be smaller, high-concept films. They didn’t always work. There are a good number of retro flying saucer sci-fi films from the 50s that we’ve mostly forgotten about (except for those “preserved” by Mystery Science Theater 3000). The ones we remember, the ones that stand out in history, are usually the ones that have made us think. The Day the Earth Stood Still is definitely a thinking sci-fi film with something to say. Directed by Robert Wise (West Side Story, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, and Hugh Marlowe, this is a classic of the genre that’s remembered today as one of the best science fiction films of all time. Now that’s not to say that everything in it is timeless. What was once considered a very tense thriller is now a rather dull affair, compared to modern films. The plot is predictable and the dialogue is clunky. But the primary strength of the film—the importance of its message—is just as true and relevant today as it was in 1951, and that makes this film important even in a modern context.

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Mean Streets

Johnny Boy flashes a wry smile in Mean Streets

“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”

With the newfound freedom afforded by loosened censorship laws, the 70s were a Renaissance of crime films. In 1972, The Godfather made a crime family as familiar as your next-door neighbors. In 1973, Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Taxi Driver) released Mean Streets, which brought crime from a family affair back to the streets, where it was untamed, unsafe, and unpredictable. Starring Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, this film had a brilliant script, strong performances by lead actors, and some innovative cinematography that made the film seem more real than many of the earlier crime films, as well as many modern ones. This is admittedly not the best work in Scorsese’s stellar career, but it was his first masterpiece, and it holds a place in crime film history, paving the way for many later brilliant films.

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Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette playfully tastes cake frosting off of her fingertip in the 2006 film

“Letting everyone down would be my greatest unhappiness.”

Marie Antoinette, the person, is someone I didn’t know a whole lot about, aside from the fact that France beheaded her and she allegedly told peasants to eat cake when they had no bread. Marie Antoinette, the 2006 film by Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides), takes that vague historical figure and brings her to life, making her more human than a lot of fictional characters I see in film. Starring Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman, the humanity of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI really is the focus of this film. Antoinette especially is made relatable to viewers today, even if the film is not 100% historically accurate—a very conscious decision on Coppola’s part. This is a film that I didn’t fully appreciate until my second viewing, as the true depth of the film evaded me on my first viewing because I was expecting something very different. The film has some great things to say about gender norms and societal expectations that elevate this from a breezy biopic into intelligent social commentary that’s surprisingly relatable.

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Das Boot

Three German soldiers standing in front of a u-boat salute the camera

“They made us all train for this day. ‘To be fearless and proud and alone. To need no one, just sacrifice. All for the Fatherland.’ Oh God, all just empty words. It’s not the way they said it was, is it? I just want someone to be with. The only thing I feel is afraid.”

War movies often comment on the nature of war, showing how horrible it can be, but there are always things that undermine or prevent a truly negative comment, such as patriotism and exciting depictions of war. Even films that showed us true horrors, such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, also gave us heroes and camaraderie. Das Boot is different. For one, it’s a German movie about World War II—a time that Germany fully admits was a terrible time in their history, so there is no patriotism or need to give us heroes. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One, The Neverending Story) and starring an all-German cast, this film gives us horror on top of nihilism, with some characters even making negative comments on the propaganda the German government was pumping into young men’s heads at the time. This is also probably the most tense war film I’ve ever seen, which is saying a lot considering how hard-hitting other war films have been. But even in a genre full of powerful movies, Das Boot hits hard and shows us, perhaps more than any other film, that war is hell.

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500 Days of Summer

Tom and Summer laugh together in a cinema in 500 Days of Summer

“Just because she likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate.”

Are you sick of romantic comedies? You know, boy meets girl, there’s some cute awkwardness, and then they live happily ever after? The “nice guy” with horrible romantic luck eventually meets the quirky, beautiful girl of his dreams? 500 Days of Summer may be the cure. It’s a smart comedy (I hesitate to call it truly romantic) about what happens when a character buys into that ideal, but the reality doesn’t match. In fact, the lead character, Tom, is so bought into the ideal romance that he completely ignores the woman he’s dating and the real romance right in front of him. Directed by Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man) and starring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, this film is intelligent, insightful, and oozing with hipster style.

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Once Upon a Time in America

Four poor Jewish kids in 1920

This film has been featured on my podcast, Peculiar Picture Show. You can listen to the podcast episode here.

“I’d have put everything I ever had on you.”

The Godfather (parts 1 and 2) may be the top pick for the epic crime genre, but Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America deserves a mention both for its detailed look at its characters and the enormous scope of the film, covering 48 years of the lives of a few characters. Written and directed by Italian director Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), who had originally been approached to direct The Godfather but turned it down and regretted it for the rest of his life, this was his attempt to recapture some of the greatness that he had passed up earlier in life. The Godfather was a thoughtful film about a crime family, but Once Upon a Time in America has a lot more heart and really shows us the deep connections that formed in the Jewish ghetto of New York City in 1920 and lasted nearly 50 years. This film is not perfect—some of the dialogue is clumsy, the time jumps can be confusing, and the characters are certainly not likable—but this film captures the humanity of getting into, and out of, a life a crime more than any other I’ve seen.

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Clueless

Cher and Dionne looking posh in Clueless (1995)

This film has been featured on my podcast, Peculiar Picture Show. You can listen to the podcast episode here.

“Ms. Stoeger, my plastic surgeon doesn’t want me doing any activity where balls fly at my nose.”

There’s a sea of dumb teen movies. Many of these even portray characters that are supposed to be smart. We know this because other characters constantly refer to them as smart, even though their actions don’t really reflect this. For a long time, I assumed Clueless was one of these films. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I saw this film, at the insistence of my podcast co-host Maria, and I was pleasantly surprised. This is very nearly the exact opposite of the trope I just described. The characters are surprisingly smart, although other characters tease them for being dumb. Written and directed by Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Look Who’s Talking) and starring Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd, and Brittany Murphy, this is a surprisingly sharp teen comedy based on Jane Austen’s Emma. The dialogue is witty, the characters are well-fleshed-out, and the film has some great things to say about women in society without forcing the statement to the detriment of the plot. This is undoubtedly one of the classic teen films of the 90s, and one of the smarter films in the genre, and it still deserves attention today.

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Donnie Darko

“I hope that when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to.”

Note: although most of my reviews are spoiler-free, this one does have some spoilers. Read at your own risk! Also, this film has been featured on my podcast, Peculiar Picture Show. Listen to the podcast episode on Donnie Darko here!

I was in college when Donnie Darko came out. Just about everyone around my age had that one friend who would not shut up about this film, how it was deep and mysterious. I didn’t get around to watching this film until the end of 2016, 15 years after its release. I’ll admit, on my first viewing, I wasn’t that impressed. There seemed to be too many loose ends and unexplained mysteries for me to take it seriously. I’m revising my review after a second viewing, not because I’ve figured out the many mysteries here, but because I think I’ve figured out why they’re in there. Is this a great film? I won’t say it’s one of the best on my list, but it’s unique and thought-provoking, to say the least.

Written and directed by Richard Kelly (Southland Tales, The Box) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, this is an independent sci-fi film that takes some serious risks. Some of them pay off, and some of them don’t, but this is markedly different than most other films out there, sci-fi or otherwise. There’s also a lot of depth lurking underneath the surface of this film, although some of it is buried a little too deep to make sense of. Is it brilliant? Is it nonsense? I think that’s really open to interpretation. That said, I’ll give you my take on it.

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Dances with Wolves

John Dunbar sits in a field with Two Socks the wolf in a promotional photo for Dances with Wolves

“Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and I enjoy their humor.”

Dances with Wolves was a huge film in its time, although it’s not flawless. The drama at times borders on melodrama, and the length of the film can cause it to drag in some places. But despite its flaws, this is a film that just works, and it was a major milestone in the Western genre. It was also a major milestone in portrayals of Native Americans in film—a group that has historically had little voice on screen. The Sioux tribe made director and star Kevin Costner an honorary member for his respectful depiction of their culture. I myself am a member of the Tlingit tribe, so this movie is very dear to me as well. The film won seven Oscars, including best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay, so it caused quite a stir in the film industry as well—which is especially impressive considering the hurdles it had to jump over to be made in the first place. Even with its flaws, this is an epic Western masterpiece that should be watched by everyone.

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